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Managing Collectively Owned Māori Land

Shona Jones03 July 2013

Ma te huruhuru te manu
ka rere – It is the feathers
that enable the bird to fly.

There’s movement locally in the Māori agribusiness sector.

Tautane Station, recently purchased by the Kahungunu Asset Holding Company, is a strategic asset returning to iwi hands to hold and manage on behalf of the wider interest group, but also paying due respect to the special interest of local hapū who originally held mana whenua over the lands which form Tautane Station.

Also, last Friday the 2013 Ahu Whenua Award, a prestigious farming prize sponsored by the BNZ and others, was awarded to Te Awahohonu Forest Trust, a Māori land trust in Hawke’s Bay which manages 21,000 ha of forestry and sheep and beef farm, including Gwavas Station. The judging process for the awards is rigorous and intensive and the result is that receiving the award is a significant acknowledgement of the collective skill, experience and expertise required to govern and manage a large Māori land asset successfully.

At Lake Runanga with the locals

There is no short answer to the question of what is required to successfully manage collectively owned land. Leadership, drive, strong governors who look for high quality information to support their commercial decisions, strategic working relationships and timely access to the right tools, services and resources. All these things offer an excellent start.

The Mana Whenua Project Team is a locally based team (Shona Jones and Chan Collin) which has been successful in attracting a Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF) project to Hawke’s Bay. The project has a wider support team which includes Dr Nick Roskruge from Massey University and several local Māori land trusts.

The purpose of the project will be to develop and test decision-making tools which are fit for purpose within the context of Māori land ownership. What does that mean in plain English? It’s about having the right tools for the task at hand. The task at hand is assessing where the problem areas are for an individual land trust and developing practical solutions to address the issues.

Why is something different needed for Māori land when there’s already plenty of information out there for agribusiness anyway? Because there are major differences in the ownership and use of Māori land when compared to General land. And it’s ideal to have tools which are fit for purpose and the environment in which they will be used.

Fit for purpose means the tools are a good fit for the type of client or case you’re working with. You wouldn’t use a dental drill to break up concrete or a felt tip pen for signwriting. Why does Māori agribusiness need tools that are different to any other business? Isn’t Māori business the same as any other business?

Yes and no.

Yes, the same factors are at play when it comes to pasture management, livestock policies, animal health, market fluctuations and managing farm staff. But there’s another layer of issues that have to be managed, over and above the usual range of things that appear in any given farming operation.

Instead of Māori land-based business operations being accountable to a small family of up to half a dozen owners, there are often hundreds of owners. Indeed, the award-winning Te Awahohonu Forest Trust has 1,150 owners. If a trust has been set up to manage the lands, the trustees will likely be drawn from amongst these owners. Ideally, they will have good governance skills and experience and knowledge of agribusiness but this is not always the case. Individuals who make excellent trustees for land blocks tend to be over-worked and in demand.

There’s also the risk of challenges from owners through the Māori Land Court. Because of this, trustees tend to adopt a conservative low-risk approach to the management of lands, largely avoiding debt and with a preference for passive use such as leasing to croppers or neighbouring farmers. Because the Hawke’s Bay economy relies heavily on primary production, we have local growers who are constantly looking for land. The rents achievable for owners are very much dependent on whether there is water on the block and good access. Landlocked land is often leased to adjoining landowners. And water is a prized commodity in a drought-prone growing region.

Fortunately, Hawke’s Bay has some examples of Māori land trusts and incorporations successfully working their own lands. One of these is the Waimarama 3A6B6B Incorporation based at Te Apiti Road in Waimarama. The 602 ha property incorporates Hakikino, the 16th century fortress operating as a successful tourist attraction, a native tree nursery and a sheep and beef farm. The Incorporation’s land was also part of a working project several years ago that produced GIS data to support land utilisation.

Robert MacDonald who manages the farm on behalf of his family agrees that owner operating is not an easy option. “We rely on having good advisers around us on all aspects of the various businesses and we take their advice. For my part, my role is to be the link to the family owners and to be looking at what’s good for them as a group. If we can use our land in a way that’s not only good business but has other benefits for owners, such as generating training, employment or housing, it’s a better result for everyone.”

The Sustainable Farming Fund project that the Mana Whenua Team will manage runs for three years from July 2013. It will develop and adapt decision-making support tools fit for use with Māori land trusts and incorporations. The project will work with trusts as a cluster to promote information sharing and collaborative working arrangements.

Shona Jones is affiliated to Omahu Marae. She has a background in Law and Policy and for the last ten years has managed many local service projects including the Mana Whenua Project, which works with land trusts on governance and land utilisation issues. Shona is a past Chair of Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga and a former trustee on the Eastern and Central Community Trust and the Lottery HB Community Committee.

For more information on the project, contact Shona on 027 288 9911 or email: hinemanu@xtra.co.nz

Shona Jones03 July 2013

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